Burcaw Boys a Dynamic Duo

What doesn’t kill you makes you laugh really hard

by Jon Burcaw on January 1, 2008 - 3:04pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 1
Early on, the Brothers Burcaw discovered the myriad sporting opportunities Shane's power chair offered.
Early on, the Brothers Burcaw discovered the myriad sporting opportunities Shane’s power chair offered.

It’s Friday night. Fifteen-year-old Shane Burcaw is priming for his first “Sweet 16” party. He’s praying his blond hair works the way it’s supposed to. Several checks in the mirror, a few shakes of the head and nervous satisfaction settles on his face. Khakis and a button-down shirt replace his usual skateboard T-shirt and long shorts. One quick shot of cologne and the night is his for the taking. If it weren’t for the grime on his power wheelchair, the outfit would be perfect.

Shane’s 12-year-old brother Andrew is making his own plans this night, meeting at a friend’s house to hang out, then going to watch the high school football game. Waiting for the phone to ring, Andrew is running football pass routes in the cul-de-sac in front of the house, aboard a unicycle. Amazingly, he catches a few passes, getting better with each toss. A neighbor asks if he’s trying out for the circus.

Shane, born with spinal muscular atrophy type 2, never walked. He learned to drive a power wheelchair at 3 years old. The 10th-grade honor student and student council representative possesses an infectious smile and quick wit. He makes friends easily and often. His can-do attitude radiates from everything he does.

Andrew never walked either. He went right to running. Although a genetic carrier of SMA, he doesn’t manifest the disease. He’s a gifted, natural athlete. He strolls onto any ball field and just knows what to do. When Andrew was 9, he became the first pitcher in the local little league to throw a no-hitter in an all-star tournament.

One is a picture of dogged determination, the other of pure athleticism. These two brothers indeed are exceptional by themselves. But it’s when they’re together that the real circus begins.

Over the years, they’ve figured out how to “play” with a wheelchair. Armed with desire, imagination and plain old ingenuity, the boys have worked the wheelchair into all kinds of adventurous activities. In the words of the famous sneaker ad, they “Just Do It.”

This would be a good place for a disclaimer. The situations that follow should not be tried at home, or anywhere else for that matter. The boys are indeed fortunate that neither has been seriously injured. In their realm however, this is life. Life is not to watch. Life is to do, with all the heart you can throw at it, whether in a wheelchair, on two fast legs, or a crazy combination of the two.

Stunts involving the wheelchair began early. When Shane was learning to drive his power chair, he easily navigated the hallways of his preschool. But without warning, he also would simply drive the chair into the wall. Driving down the center of the hallway was boring. Enjoying the bumps as much as the intricate driving skills, Shane clearly was a daredevil in the making.

As the boys grew older, they began to discover the unique sporting opportunities presented by the chair. They figured something that heavy and strong easily could pull or push all kinds of stuff. It started with a wagon tied with rope to the back of the wheelchair, with Andrew the willing passenger. This rig became anything their imaginations conjured up — farm tractor, school bus, taxi cab. Everyone wanted rides. Of course, soon more speed was introduced. Jackknifes, rollovers and other types of wrecks, planned and unplanned, soon followed. They were just getting started.

Street hockey may seem like a tough game for a kid in a wheelchair, but add a hockey stick duct taped to the chair, a goalie mask, and a firm resolve behind the mask, and you get a goaltender who’s almost impossible to score on. Shane filled up most of the net just sitting there! He later became a goalie on his fifth-grade street hockey team, which won the school district’s street hockey championship that year.

About this time remarkable things began to happen for Andrew as well. It became evident that he was very athletic. He had good instincts. He knew how to stay away from the chair and not get run over. This athleticism was a sporting opportunity, just like the chair.

One stunt in particular defined the ingenuity of these two stuntmen. Shane was 12; Andrew was 9 and approaching four feet tall. The neighbors had a regulation-height basketball hoop that was a constant challenge. The bigger kids could dunk the ball. It was decided Andrew must dunk as well.

They developed a plan. Like previous plans, it involved a rope.

Burcaw Family

First, they tied the rope around Andrew’s mid section. The neighbor’s couch pillows kept it from cutting into his skin. The other end of the rope was thrown up through the net and then tied to the front of Shane’s wheelchair. Shane backed up slowly until Andrew was airborne, floating slowly towards the hoop, basketball in hand. As Andrew neared the top, the wheelchair began losing traction. Shane continued pulling, shredding tires and gears until the entire enterprise was halted due to mechanical failure. The laughter of the kids and the determined look on Shane’s face were priceless.

As a result of that stunt, the wheelchair required extensive repairs. Small wonder. Shane was relegated to a manual chair, which meant sitting in one place, since he couldn’t move it by himself. He went crazy without the ability to move. Big lesson learned … just ’cause you can doesn’t mean you should! Miraculously no one was hurt. There definitely was an angel watching that day.

The huge asphalt circle of our cul-de-sac is a gathering place for all kinds of games. As Andrew became more involved in sports, Shane coached him in them all — baseball, basketball, football, street hockey, soccer, or any other sport with a ball.

Andrew runs football pass routes well because he’s had practice eluding a four-and-a-half-foot-tall mechanical monster. Shane’s current chair weighs over 400 pounds and has a top speed of 10 miles per hour. Although he can’t catch a ball himself, he loves to make people miss.

A snowstorm hardly keeps the brothers inside; it simply allows them to go slip-sliding away.
A snowstorm hardly keeps the brothers inside; it simply allows them to go slip-sliding away.

Snow brings fresh opportunity to the cul-de-sac. Enshrouded in a poncho, Shane pulls Andrew on his sled in ever-widening circles until the ride ends with the inevitable whip into the curb … snow, sled and laughter in all directions.

There’s no doubt the boys are who they are today because of this unique synergy they developed early on. They’ve created videos to illustrate their fun. The titles speak for themselves: "Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up and Hold On — 5 Hectic Minutes with Shane Burcaw" and "Skates, Skateboards, Snowboards, Wheelchairs & Wipeouts."

It’s late Friday night now. Shane’s come back from his Sweet 16 party. He had a blast. He danced, ate finger foods and yelled himself hoarse over the loud music. Nobody noticed the grime on the wheelchair. Andrew hung out and watched the football game with his buddies.

The boys were apart tonight. Sadly, that’ll begin to happen more, the older they get. But until they get too old for it, there will be tomorrow and yet another sky’s-the-limit adventure. They’re not just watching life. They’re doing it, doing it well, and helping each other along in a way no one else ever could.

Jon, Sue, Shane and Andrew Burcaw live in Bethlehem, Pa. Shane was the 2000 MDA Tall Cedars Goodwill Ambassador and frequently represents the Association at events in the Lehigh Valley area. To see a video of the Burcaw boys in action, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=og08RhKp_6Q.

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